What We Can Learn From Joel Osteen

Dr. Ray Pritchard

John Armstrong has been under a bit of siege on his weblog because of some mildly favorable comments he made about Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. You can read John's comments here  and here and here. I should add that John has received far more responses to his posts regarding Osteen than to anything else he has written since starting his blog several weeks ago. I suppose that's not surprising since Joel Osteen pastors the largest church in America--30,000 attend every Sunday. Once the renovation of the Compaq Arena in Houston is complete, Pastor Osteen says he hopes to attract 100,000 every weekend. It's not out of the question, especially since his television ministry has become so popular.

Like most pastors in America, I received a free copy of Osteen's bestseller, Your Best Life Now. I skimmed through the book and found some things I thought were useful. His section on forgiveness is very good. Many of the chapters offer practical advice in simple language. I do agree with those who find the book very light on the gospel and tending toward some version of "prosperity theology." I appreciated his many references to his father's influence on his life. It's clear that he never aspired to become a pastor, much less a media superstar. On a purely personal note, last year at the Christian booksellers convention in Atlanta, I happened to be scheduled for a TV interview right after him. Although I didn't meet him, I got to observe him up close for almost 30 minutes. I can report that he didn't sweep into the studio with an entourage of handlers, as you often see with the real big Christian celebrities. He sat on a couch a few feet away from me and answered questions in very friendly, relaxed manner. If anything, he seemed almost shy.

I'm no apologist for Joel Osteen. If you want to learn the book of Romans, you'll have to go elsewhere. But as John Armstrong pointed out, he does present many biblical truths in a very simple, understandable fashion. And he has a basic likeability and innocence that sets him apart from many other TV preachers.

I said all of that to say this. Preachers could do worse than to study Joel Osteen. He has found a way to communicate to millions of people in a language they can understand. Do I wish he had less prosperity theology in his messages and more solid gospel teaching? Yes. But I do appreciate his ability to speak to people outside the four walls of the church.

What made me think about this was something that happened today at lunch. I went to Parky's Hot Dogs in Forest Park, a delightfully ramshackle hot dog stand where you can get hot greasy fries, a Polish sausage, and a large Coke for $4.50. I suppose I've been there 300 times in the last ten years. The guy who serves the fries always calls me Father. "I thought they were going to elect you pope," he said with a grin. "I was a shoo-in until they found out I was married," I replied.  I bantered with the two ladies who make the hot dogs, get the drinks, and work the cash register. We're all friends even though I don't know their names and they only know I'm a reverend of some sort. So I paid for my food and as I was leaving the window, the lady at the cash register said, "I love that preacher on TV." Which one? "You know, that young one." She thought for a minute and said, "Osteen." "Joel Osteen," I offered. "Yes. He speaks to my heart." And she smiled.

John Armstrong encouraged his readers to pray for Joel Osteen, and I am happy to join him in that request. God has given him an enormous platform for speaking to millions of people every week. Let's offer correction where that is necessary, and prayers because he is a brother in Christ, and let's learn from him as well. The woman at Parky's represents a host of others who are cut off from most of our churches.  Joel Osteen speaks to her heart. We need to find a way to do the same thing.

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